Georgia law creates a mechanism to settle personal injury claims arising from a motor vehicle accident prior to the filing of a lawsuit. Under this law, a settlement offer made by one party to the other must contain the following terms:
- a time period to accept the offer, which may not be less than 30 days after it is received by the other party;
- the amount of money to be paid;
- the party or parties who will be released if the offer is accepted;
- the type of release; and
- which specific claims will be released.
Once an offer is made that complies with these requirements, the other party may accept–thereby forming a legally binding settlement agreement–by sending a “written acceptance of the material terms” to the offering party. The receiving party may ask for “reasonable clarification” of the offer’s terms without actually making a counteroffer.
Duenas v. Cook
Despite the clear requirements of Georgia’s pre-lawsuit settlement law, there are still cases in which there is disagreement between the parties as to whether an offer was validly accepted. The Georgia Court of Appeals recently ruled on such a dispute. This particular case involves a 2016 accident involving a truck and a bicyclist. The bicyclist sustained injuries in the collision. His personal injury attorney subsequently sent the truck driver’s insurance company a “time-limited settlement offer” that substantially complied with Georgia law. Specifically, the material terms were as follows:
- The insurance company had to accept the offer within 35 days of receiving it.
- The insurance company agreed to pay the bicyclist $100,000, which was the limit of the truck driver’s policy.
- The bicyclist agreed to release the truck driver.
- The release would be a “Limited Liability Release,” which preserved the bicyclist’s right to seek compensation under any other applicable insurance coverage.
- The limited release would cover “all personal injury/bodily injury” claims arising from the accident.
The insurance company received the offer on October 31, 2016. The next day, a claims adjuster contacted the bicyclist attorney’s office. The adjuster verbally indicated the insurer “would accept the settlement demand” and pay the $100,000. After some additional email exchanges, the insurer sent a check and a draft release for the bicyclist to sign. The attorney objected to the release, however, as its terms differed from those proposed in the settlement offer.
The attorney subsequently notified the insurance company that “you have never even accepted my client’s offer of compromise,” but extended the deadline for the insurer to “unequivocally” accept. The insurer replied that the release it sent was “our standard documents” and that if the attorney wished to submit “another release that [you] would like is to review, please feel free to send it over and we will have our legal department review it for approval.”
Eventually, the bicyclist abandoned the settlement talks and sued the truck driver. The driver moved to enforce what he claimed was a binding settlement agreement. Although the trial court granted the motion, the Court of Appeals reversed, explaining that the insurer “did not unequivocally accept the material term in the Settlement Offer,” as its submission of a different release form did, in fact, constitute a counteroffer.